Metro Nashville Police Department interim Chief John Drake grew up in Music City and told a group of Nashvillians Saturday morning he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
“I’m looking to stay here a lot longer,” he said during an hour-long Saturday morning community conversation conducted via the Zoom platform and emceed by Nashville Vice Mayor Jim Shulman.
About 80 people including dignitaries Davidson County Clerk Brenda Wynn and Metro council members John Rutherford and Patricia Campbell tuned into the 10 a.m. call that focused on Drake’s recent transition into the department’s top spot. The call also referenced his philosophy and aspirations for the nearly 1,500 staffed department that polices close to 700,000 residents.
Former police Chief Steve Anderson’ retired Aug. 6. Drake, the department’s former deputy chief, assumed command of the department Aug. 7.
Mayor John Cooper previously said Anderson planned to retire this fall amid ongoing calls for police reform in Nashville and across the nation. What caused the 45-year veteran of the department’s early departure from the top post remains a mystery.
Cooper said he plans to fill the department’s top police slot by the end of October. His plan to hire the next chief includes multiple levels of community input on the decision, as well as leaning on national organizations for guidance, his office said.
Drake, a 32-year-department veteran and native Nashvillian, wants the job.
How did you get on the force?
Drake, grew up in East Nashville and attended Metro Nashville Public Schools. He played football, ran track and wrestled at East High School, now Stratford STEM Magnet School, where he graduated in 1983. He went onto attend Middle Tennessee State University, then Bethel University, in Nashville.
In 1987, Drake said a cousin who wanted to join the department encouraged him to apply.
Drake was hired in March 1988.
Over the years, Drake worked his way up through the ranks, starting out in patrol in the West Precinct working the 3-11 p.m. second shift.
“Some people consider it one of the toughest neighborhoods, he said. “It was kind of a daunting task.
But while there he said he made great strides including forging good community ties and solving crimes — including one burglary that led him to receive an Officer of the Month award.
From patrol, he went onto work narcotics, later became a sergeant and then worked in Internal Affairs — an assigned role he appreciated.
“You have opportunity to hold people accountable and it makes the department better,” Drake said.
After working IA, he was promoted to lieutenant working at the Hermitage Precinct and later became a field supervisor.
At 4:30 a.m. on a day that followed, Drake said Anderson called him asking him to meet him for breakfast.
“I thought, ‘What in the world is this about? What did I do?'”
Drake said he was pleased with Anderson asked him to lead the department’s domestic violence division. A year or so later Anderson appointed him as commander of the Central Precinct, which covers downtown including Lower Broadway.
“I thought “Why there’? I didn’t know anyone in the downtown area, including business owners and merchants. But I hit the ground running. I’m a good listener.”
While there he helped started a downtown entertainment district team – a unit of about 20 people dedicated to working downtown and Broadway.
What’s your philosophy on policing?
“We have proactive policing which I think has caused us a lot of concern around the country as well as here.”
The concern, he said started the North Nashville activist group Gideon’s Army.
“People think we have racist police. That’s not the case,” Drake said.
“When you have calls for service in an area you have hot spots so officers in that area… do whatever they can to suppress crime,” he said. “They already happen to be in those neighborhoods where there are a lot of problems… so it appears like over policing in those areas. In my opinion it was (over policing) but it was an unintended consequence.”
“My philosophy is let’s do community engagement… if we want a good police department … we go into the areas and we walk, and we meet people and we give them our phone numbers and say we are here for you. let them see the good side of policing.
Drake said since he’s been at the helm, the department has conducted movie nights and field clean-up days.
“In the South Precinct, we had officers from community engagement team go into that area and help clean up. now the neighborhood followed in its steps and is helping,” he said. “To hear that…. to know we are putting comm engagement there is empowering.”
Drake also mentioned his thoughts on how do battle juvenile crime including potentially getting the federal government involved for help.
“Incarceration is not the answer,” he said adding the department’s goal is to look at children who are chronic offenders . “Finding problem people in problem neighborhoods to make it a better community.”
How will you deal with over aggressive policing?
Deescalation is something we had to have, he said.
Last month Drake ordered an investigation into the department’s Aug. 18 execution of a search warrant at the home of an innocent Edgehill family. He decommissioned three officers on while the investigation is ongoing and adjusted the approval requirements for search warrants.
Officers used a battering ram to knock in the door at the home of a mother and her two children. MNPD has released body camera footage of the incident. The subject of the search warrant was a 16-year-old who did not live at the home and hadn’t for at least four months.
“We have to be better than that,” Drake said at the time.
“What was the urgency? I asked ‘Why couldn’t we have waited’? When we can wait, let’s wait,” he said Saturday.
With Internal Affairs, Drake said the department now polices whether an officer has too many incidents. If so they conduct a wellness check and look into the issues.
What’s your vision of training? What’s the best way to avoid future problems down the road?
Banning chokeholds is on the list, he said.
“A new thing we are doing is providing all new recruits with a handbook on fair policing, implicit bias training, ethics training and deescalation,” he said, so when they get to the academy they have those things in mind.
Officers are also required to participate in additional training.
“Incidents I see around the country there is a sense of urgency and lack of deescalation and sometime bad tactics,” he said.
What are your thoughts on defunding the police?
“We should have 1,511 officers. We’re about 75 officers short,” he said. “Even if we had full (capacity) we’re still 200-300 officers short, I feel, to keep this city safe.”
“Defunding would hurt us more because we would lose more officers and make the city unsafe. I believe in reallocation,” he said. One idea: Perhaps moving funds to focus on mental health training.
“I’ve thought about taking plain clothes officers and training them more on mental health and linking them up with mobile crisis and creating a team to respond to mental health crisis situation — in the event there aren’t officers with that extensive training at the scene.”
Thoughts on sexual allegations?
Last month a once-obscure advocacy group amplified individual allegations of sexual misconduct within the police department, leading to a groundswell of outrage and three investigations into the agency and its culture.
Silent No Longer Tennessee said they surveyed 10 current and former police employees earlier this year, spoke to an undisclosed number of women and logged two allegations of sexual assault. At least two women described incidents of sexual harassment.
“We’ve taken them to investigation and made them public,” Drake said when asked about it on Saturday. “I support the TBI (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation) investigation. We’re waiting for the conclusion of that. We take sex violence allegation very seriously.”
“We’ve also started a direct line where any officer who feels like they’ve had any type of sex harassment can call HR and get a direct line to the chief. That’s something that’s never been done before.”
He also said everyone from the chief of police down to officers will go through additional anti- sexual harassment training.
“Whatever allegations we can prove to be true we will hold the officer accountable. We also want to create a culture to let people know that if something happens we are going to talk about it.”
What are your thoughts on use of force?
“If we can get someone without using force that’s what we are going to do,” Drake said.
“We’ll put officers through extra training on use of force. If you don’t pass you go through remedial training to get it right,” he said. “We want officer to know this is what happened, this is what we can do different.
What’s your relationship with The Community Oversight Board?
“They (The Community Oversight Board) are an elected board and we want to make sure it’s successful,” Drake said. “Our community has spoken and I believe in the community. If they want this I want this as well. For however long or short I’m in the seat.”
“We want them to get access to records — that’s really been the sticking point or them,” he said. “For example Tabitha Tuders — it’s a sensitive case and we need to be careful about what we release — so we will have a discussion on what we can release.”
He said his department plans to sit down with the board to discuss what they want.
Recently, he said, a COB member told him it was refreshing to know that.
How do you deal with department morale?
“I’m having talks with different people. I’m going out to roll calls and putting a positive message out,” he said. “The message is we signed up to be police off to help people. We signed up to do good things and sometimes we deal with things that are not too pleasant but we have to do that.”
Recently, he said, they wanted a polo uniform to wear for special assignments. Something that isn’t as hot.
“I’m going to give them that,” he said.
Drake also said he hopes to give officers more time off with their families.
“Right now we don’t have the personnel to do that,” he said, so he has expanded recruitment. Hopefully we’ll get more officers and that will be possible. The community comes first but I want to make sure our officers are happy. We have happy officers we’re going to have a happy community.”
Drake said they also plan to partner with the Titans to let kids know “being a Black officer is cool.”
Shulman said the next community conversation will be new chair of the Budget and Finance Committee first-year Councilmember Kyonzté Toombs.
Natalie Neysa Alund covers breaking news in Nashville for USA TODAY NETWORK – TENNESSEE. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @nataliealund.